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Third-Place Short Story Winner: “The Recital”

I take out my flute case and open it. First the outer case – soft, fleece-lined, cushy. Then the inner case, hard, oblong, leather-covered. My flute sits securely in there, waiting, divided into three pieces for storage, all nestled snugly in brown velvet.

I grasp the biggest piece first, the middle part, a foot long, all lined with intricate keys. Then the foot joint, the little one, and twist it onto the end of the main body. Finally I take out the headpiece, the most intimate part of the flute, with no keys, just an open mouth on one side for kissing and blowing into.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything like that with anyone or anything but my flute. Amazing how an inanimate object can become your best friend.

 

 

Put together, all three pieces, my flute becomes a long silver stick, all glittery and sprouting with keys and levers and rods and bits of metal. Even Greta and Richard, brilliant as they were, found its complexities intimidating.

Flutes are made for technical brilliance. Runs, trills, ridiculous sheer numbers of notes packed into a teeny space… This is the flute’s M.O. If you want to call yourself a flautist, you have to be ready for feats of note-shaping verging on the impossible.

I could never understand how professionals do it. I love my flute, I love playing it, but that whole technical thing just never came naturally to me. I’d watch my flute-friends who would just whip out these tunes that would dance up and down the register, I swear hitting seventy-two distinct notes in less than ten seconds. And they’d make it look so easy.

It wasn’t easy for me. But now I’ve learned that it’s not impossible. Apparently what I needed was the right environment.

At least it’s right for something.

 

 

I’ve prepared my program for my recital. I’ve printed it. It’s ready. I pull it out and admire it.

It’s colorful, a riot of blues and greens, converging in starbursts and arrows and boomerang shapes. It looks like something out of the space age, and that makes me smile. It seems appropriate.

There is only one copy.

 

 

First, warmups. I play a B flat major scale, two octaves of it. Then a G major scale. Two more octaves. I do a full three octaves of a C major scale, then change it to a C minor scale. Then I run through the flute’s entire range chromatically, up and down. Add an arpeggio at the end just for flourish.

I end my warmup the way I always do now, with a hornpipe. It’s become easy for me. Just before I left on the mission, I went to a concert – I wanted to hear a full orchestra play before I went, all those different instruments, all those different people – and as the musicians warmed up on stage before the concert started, one of the flautists played a hornpipe from memory in at least twelve different keys, just piping along merrily. I decided to try doing the same thing when I got home, and it was so hard. I only made it through the tune three times before I put my flute down from mental and physical exhaustion. Clearly I was way out of practice.

That was when I decided to bring the flute along on the mission. Surely I’d have at least a little bit of free time to play it.

 

 

Here’s the thing about making the flute your instrument: It’s portable.

The standard flute case can easily be popped into your backpack, which is what I used to do in college, when I was a flute major. Some of my friends would stuff their music in there too, and their folding music stands, becoming hands-free walking flute studios. I never went that far. Folding stands can be rickety, which irritated me, so I always insisted on bringing a giant, solid music stand with me when I was going to play.

Back then I did. I’m glad I got over it. I’d never have been able to bring a big stand on the mission, but a folding stand is light and fits right into one of the storage pods.

 

 

After warming up, I unfold my stand. I secure it and myself to the floor in front of one of the windows so I can practice before my recital.

Even after all these years, I make the mistake of trying to fasten too much music at once onto the spindly stand. The stand keels over oh so gently, spilling the music – sonatas, concertos, a book of etudes – into the air, where it revolves slowly.

I’m used to this. I’m slightly annoyed, but I don’t make the effort to curse. No one could hear me anyway.

I don’t really need the music. I’ve long since committed it all to memory. The printed notes are sort of a crutch, I suppose, a security blanket. Reminding me of the security of home.

Ignoring the pages floating around me, I raise my flute and begin to play. My gaze wanders out the window as my fingers dance, getting lost amid the endless stars.

 

 

Aeronautical engineering was a better path for me. I missed music, but I found my heart tugged more toward the sky. It took me a while to switch majors, but eventually I realized that it was a lot easier to be a full-time astronaut and a casual musician than the other way around.

The other thing was that my flute technique just wasn’t quite where it needed to be. I was good enough to be a high-end student, but if I wanted to be a professional, I’d need to sacrifice almost everything else in my life and devote myself to practicing. I decided I wasn’t willing to do that. Life is too big, too much to experience. Too much to explore.

As was probably inevitable, once I threw myself into my new major, music fell by the wayside. I kept meaning to get back into it, but then there would be piloting lessons, and field training, and massive amounts of study so I could catch up with the people who’d wanted to go to space since there were knee-high. But I never regretted it too much.

Too much to explore. Too far to explore. Take me to the stars.

 

 

One of the ways I occupy my brain these days: debating with myself whether I still don’t regret it.

I really don’t know.

On the one hand, I’m here.

On the other hand, if I hadn’t switched majors and launched myself upward, I’d still be down there.

Which would be better? Or worse?

I have absolutely no idea. Because I have absolutely no idea what is happening down there.

 

 

I’ve run through the music I’ll be playing. I decide to take one more float around the station before the recital starts.

The station feels too big, as always. It felt too big when it was just the three of us. It was designed for six, and that really was the optimal number. Anytime someone left, the station always felt cavernous until another crew came to take their place. 

I waft weightlessly through the living quarters – small and cramped, of necessity, and yet still entirely too spacious when it’s just me.

I often wonder whether we’d – I’d – have come out of this any better if we’d been fully staffed when it happened. If the replacement crew had made it to the station before we lost contact with everyone.

I often wonder what happened to the replacement crew, too.

 

 

I float over to the communications center, just in case.

Nothing, of course. Nothing expected, nothing received.

How long has it been? I lost track ages ago.

The last message was abrupt and unexpected. A coup, they said. No one knows who’s in charge. We’re working to get you all home. For now, just stay there. You’re safer up there anyway.

What? we asked. What’s going on? What do you mean, a coup? Where are the astronauts on their way to join us – are they still coming? What about the supplies they’re supposed to bring? Greta and Richard and I can run the station, of course, and there’s food to last for years, but –

Static.

We should have asked a single question first instead of throwing the kitchen sink at them in our shock and confusion. If we’d asked just one question, maybe we’d have gotten one answer before Earth disappeared into radio silence.

 

 

I meander over to the sleeping zone, where a pen levitates lazily. Greta’s. It still has some of her blood on it from when I stabbed her. There’s no good reason, I think, why it was her and not me.

 

 

Richard was the first to go – but, thank God, not too soon. We needed each other through those interminable first months of uncertainty.

Richard was the worst off, I think. Greta and I didn’t have families, but he did. He worried endlessly about his spouse and their daughter, wondering where they were, whether they were.

Maybe it was a kindness that he got cancer. Or whatever it was. We guessed it was cancer based on the symptoms and the limited amount of medical technology onboard, but it’s not like any of us were doctors.

And it’s not like anyone on Earth was available for diagnosis.

Just before he died, Richard confessed that he selfishly hoped that his family was indeed gone, so he could see them in heaven, instead of feeling like he’d abandoned them.

 

 

After that it was just Greta and me.

We’d always gotten along really well, fortunately. And now we had all the time in the world to enjoy each other’s company.

The whole thing got to her, though. It might have taken years – really, I’ve lost track of all sense of time – but there came a day.

Greta’s pen has floated over to me, and I reach out for it and look at the blood, long since dried. I didn’t have the heart to clean it off. Or to get rid of it, or put it out of sight. I felt I owed it to her, to remember.

I think trying to take care of Greta’s descent helped me stay stable amid all the loneliness. But it wasn’t just the isolation; it was the not knowing. It was seeing Earth out the window, looking close enough to touch, and driving yourself crazy, wondering.

Caring for Greta exhausted me, but it gave me focus. And then her bad dreams got worse, and then the paranoia came, and then the pen happened.

 

 

And so my flute.

I’m back at my music stand now, looking at my instrument gripped in my hand. I’m not sure how long I’ve been here.

Do I mean I don’t know how long I’ve been staring at my flute, or how long I’ve been all alone?

I suppose the answer is yes.

My flute has been a good friend. It’s given me something to work on and work toward. Before, I was never willing to sacrifice everything to have professional-level technique. But now everything else has been sacrificed.

If I had stayed a music major, the culminating event would have been a recital performing the hardest music I could pull off. It always sort of irked me that I hadn’t done this. I felt like I had something to prove.

I decided I wouldn’t be done until I had proved it.

 

 

How long does one wait? How long does one keep glancing intermittently to see if it is the same or has changed? How long does someone suppress action? What if there is no action to take?

How do you know?

 

 

The stars will be my audience. They will applaud. They will welcome me home.

I kiss my flute, my beloved silver stick, my best friend. I close my eyes. I am ready. It is time.

I exhale.

 

 

Amy King on her writing process for “The Recital”

Writing something utterly from scratch always intimidates me, never mind how long I’ve been at this. I usually find I have my best success when I give myself a prompt of some kind – anything will do – and then just write whatever comes to mind. This gives me something concrete to use as a starting point for shaping my work into the kind of writing I want it to be. With “The Recital,” I was extra-intimidated because I had never tackled fiction before, so I adopted the word “practice” as my prompt to remind myself to embrace imperfection. “Practice” made me think of music, so I started writing about playing the flute.
 
The sci-fi aspect of “The Recital” is an homage to my dad, who instilled in me a love of all things space-y and and tomorrowland-ish. Some of my earliest memories are of our ritual viewings of “Star Trek” reruns on our old, diminutive Toshiba every Saturday and Sunday at 5 o’clock. I didn’t really understand the plotlines at the time, but there were spaceships and aliens and lots of stars, and that was the important thing.
 
—Amy King has been writing, editing and proofreading for her entire life, and she has been lucky enough to make money at it while working as a journalist, teacher, musician and online-content creator. She lives in Seattle with her husband, their two children and their cat, Papagena. “The Recital” is her first work of fiction.